The Panopticon

Jenni Fagan
Paperback £8.99 Cornerstone ISBN: 9780099558644
by Hayden Westfield-Bell

No One is Free

April 8, 2017 | by Hayden Westfield-Bell

No one is free in Fagan’s, Panopticon. There is always someone watching from above – and not the omnipresent benevolent kind of onlooker. ‘They’re there when I fight, and fuck, and wank’ writes Anais, protagonist of a world bristling with antagonists.

All it takes is a funny look to send someone over the edge. Give the girl in the room next door the wrong look, and you’re guaranteed a beating. Or worse. But that’s nothing. Nothing compared to the experiment, who ‘can see every minute, of every minute, of every fucking day.’

Nothing could be more ideal for the experiment than an 18th century panopticon hidden in the woods; a forgotten prison recently renovated by The Midlothian Social Work Department to house young offenders like fifteen year old Anais. She rolls through the gates in the opening chapter, sitting quietly in the back of a police car. Her skirt spattered with blood. There’s a policewoman in a coma – but was it Anais, or wasn’t it? She can’t remember herself.

It doesn’t matter, because Anais has a history. The weight of her files are damning enough – even if their contents fail to prove that she’s capable of battering a cop. Enough is enough. There’s a thin line between ‘lifer’ (always been in care and always will be) and ‘proper jail’. Anais is walking the tightrope.

But Fagan’s debut is not all Down and Out in Paris and London, there’s hope, love and laughter in the The Panopticon. Even the former prison itself contains safe spaces; small rooms and corners tucked away from the gaze of that all-seeing central tower. And though we see through Anais’s eyes we’re not restricted to her tragic story alone. The prison walls carry the muddied sounds of a hushed conversation taking place on the rooftop, and the lake listens intently to a history uttered to Anais behind the leaves of some unidentified tree.

Fagan’s dedication to realism makes this book unsettling for the faint at heart. The light scots tone lends a colloquial humanism to her characters; embedding them clearly in the Scottish landscape but also helping to further distinguish between characters and their social roles. Anais effs and blinds her way through the bulk of the novel, and her lexicon is clearly informed by the life she’s lead and what she’s seen. There is a delicate horror in Anais’s ruminations on fucking and bad drug trips, on paedophilia and working the streets – and further horror in the understanding nods from other residents. They know ‘which paedos in town will lock you in their flat and have you gang-banged until you turn fucking tricks.’

But behind the harsh realism of Fagan’s world there are clear themes at play, explored with a mature subtlety that rests lightly at the back of your mind. Their presence is not apparent until afterwards, when a short meditation on the text excites numerous thoughts regarding the situations Anais finds herself in – the refurbished panopticon is a microcosm of social work. It’s an echo of an echo of an echo, where every home is the same nightmare of interested, disinterested, perverse, dangerous or caring staff, where every first week in a new home ends in a fistfight to decide place and dominance.

And there, in the middle of it all, is the all-seeing experiment. The big eye looking out over everything; judging, controlling, and attempting to normalise everyone below. The system quarantines Anais; holding her in with the other unappreciated and misunderstood then turning the screw. Punishing her and punishing others until a small spark lights the world on fire. And Anais knows all about fires; ‘one match is all it takes.’

Hayden Westfield-Bell is a creative writer, and published poet. He wrote voluntarily for Sabotage Reviews for two years. He also posts book reviews on his own website: https://haydenwritesthings.wordpress.com/ and reviews video games, films, and even television series.

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